As someone who did not chair any of the four nonprofit boards that I observed this summer, I have great respect and admiration for those who did. I also have compassion, curiosity and some suggestions for them as dedicated, determined and weary board chairs.
As a consultant who facilitates the board process, I watched four extraordinary volunteer leaders work hard — and long — to lead their nonprofits through significant transitions in their organizations. Two board chairs navigated the transitions of longtime executives, one faced growing tension between the board and the chief executive, and another pushed his reluctant board toward strategic planning. In their efforts to lead effectively, each sacrificed significant time to shoulder responsibilities well beyond their purview and none were confident in their abilities (or desires) to continue.
Given how utterly essential the board chair is to board effectiveness, their struggle was wrenching. Their role models were typically their predecessors, for better or worse, so they strived to lead either just like — or not at all like — them. Beyond osmosis, these board chairs did not have access to training, coaching or best practice orientation. These simple tips are intended to support current and prospective nonprofit board chairs who aim to lead well without excessive self-sacrifice.
Know the Right Time to Serve
It’s an honor to be invited to serve on a nonprofit board, not to mention lead it. The temptation to accept the nomination to chair a board is great, especially when you have been handpicked by the nominating committee, CEO, founder or board chair. As a board president recently shared, “When the founding executive director reported her terminal diagnosis to the executive committee, she looked at me and said she’d feel better knowing I would be the next board chair. There is no way I would have let her down…despite the challenge I knew the role would pose for me at that time.”
Timing IS everything. On a personal level, assuming the board leadership role at the wrong time can be detrimental to your career, family and/or health. Board leadership can be equivalent to an unpaid job in terms of time commitment and responsibility, so recognize the context your life presents. A recent promotion, a new baby, a pending relocation and other commitments might interfere with your ability to balance board leadership responsibilities effectively.
Similarly, consider what’s happening in the organization. A dynamic change agent might not be the right leader to chair the board following a period of great transition, when the board seeks to re-establish its equilibrium. A board preparing to launch a capital campaign should not be led by a chair who resists cultivating a culture of philanthropy. Alignment between the board’s priorities and the board chair’s capacity and skill sets is essential.
Plan and Prepare for the Term
To be clear, responsibility for ensuring alignment between the board’s needs and the board chair’s abilities falls first to the whole board, presumably through a board development/governance committee engaged in effective officer succession planning. According to BoardSource, the committee should work with the board to define the necessary qualifications, then consult individually with board members for nominations before identifying a candidate to bring forward for election. This emphasizes the importance of providing continuous opportunities for leadership as well as training to cultivate and maintain a pool of candidates ready for board leadership.
Ironically, research suggests that many boards do not invest in that training or leadership development. In fact, Nonprofit Quarterly reported on a study by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management indicating that 51% of board chairs had no formal preparation for their roles. Less than half of survey respondents had held the role of vice chair before ascending to chair and only about one-quarter were recommended officially by a nominating committee. The majority of board chairs happened to be in the presumably right place at the right time, selected without clear process and accepted without broad consideration.
Preparing to lead, then, is also part of the board chair’s personal responsibility and should include consultation with mentors. Also useful is previous experience as a committee chair or other board officer, as well as books, workshops, conferences and online resources.
Know the Role
All four board chairs I mentioned previously were relatively new to their roles when we met. Each had a different image of what leading a board would mean. One had observed her predecessor, a 24-year incumbent who did not subscribe to term limits, and believed the role to be authoritative oversight of the CEO; one expected to run interference for a seasoned executive director; another arrived poised to light a fire under board members’ feet; and the fourth expected to play the role of sounding board to executive staff and committee chairs.
Rather than let board chairs define their roles based on perception and interpretation, it is essential for the board to develop clarity and shared agreement on the role of the board chair. Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) reminds us to clarify the role of board chair in relation to the full board, the CEO and the community. Given the importance of advocacy and community engagement as governance functions, the board chair should play a leadership role in engaging stakeholders. NPQ even indicates that board chairs would benefit from enhanced leadership skills in advocacy, funder and donor cultivation, media relations and community engagement.
Leaders of nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike require role clarity. According to Harvard Business Review, every board chair must understand that their role is neither that of the CEO nor the CEO’s boss. An effective board chair knows they represent the board and keeps board members informed about new developments. They also understand that the “board is the collective ‘boss’ of the CEO and…the chair’s (job) is to make sure the board provides the goals, resources, rules, and accountability the CEO needs.”
Another concept to borrow from the corporate sector is an approach to the performance evaluation of the board. As noted by Harvard Business Review, the seasoned board chair of two multinational companies believes in assessing the quality of a board’s work not through outputs, but through inputs. Since the board’s outputs — specifically, the decisions it makes — can’t be measured in real time, it makes sense to measure the quality of five critical inputs: people, board agendas, board materials, board processes and board minutes. This chair believes their job is ensuring these inputs are first-rate.
Indeed, ensuring effective board process — from recruitment to meeting design and from prep to decision-making, and more — is a key responsibility of the nonprofit board chair. It does not mean, however, that the board chair should ever act in place of the board — or the CEO, for that matter. Another piece from Nonprofit Quarterly (charmingly entitled, Zen and the Art of the Nonprofit Board Chair) notes that exceptional board chairs are viewed as adept in leveraging their role to “clarify the work of the board and the issues it faces…to facilitate organizational change.”
Of course, it is not only the board’s process and performance that the chair must monitor, but also their own. NPQ notes that leading a nonprofit board requires a chair who can be self-reflective. It is important for board chairs to gather feedback, mostly from board members and the CEO, and then internalize it in order to make adjustments in their leadership and direction.
When the role of board chair is viewed beyond the honor and opportunity it is to reveal the true depth and range of its responsibility, board leaders can take the reins knowingly to lead with energy, confidence and effectiveness.